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19.7.06

Summer Opera 2006: "Fidelio"

Karita Mattila, sopranoThe Théâtre du Châtelet has been having quite a summer opera season, with a new opera for children and blockbuster appearances by Jessye Norman. Last week, there were two performances of Beethoven's Fidelio with another killer cast, including Karita Mattila and Ben Heppner. Christian Merlin was there (Ivresse vocale, déception orchestrale, June 28) for Le Figaro (my translation):

There are several ways to create pleasure in opera: beautiful voices, believable characters, coherence of direction, fullness in the orchestral conducting. Sure, the ideal is to obtain a combination of all of those parameters: in that case, one would be at a perfect performance. But putting all the cards on one of them can also be extremely enjoyable. In the case of the Fidelio offered in a concert version at the Châtelet, the audience was delighted to discover again the strong sensations that a first-rate casting can give. Henriette Bonde-Hansen's Marzellina was delicious, and Pavol Breslik's Jaquino was a model of Mozartean style. Juha Uusitalo's Don Pizarro was a strong presence, a powerful but focused voice. And then what can we say of Matti Salminen's Rocco, a considerably bass voice, as deep it is resonant? A monument! What can we say of the ideal Florestan of Ben Heppner, for whom Florestan's heroism posed sufficiently few problems so that he profited from the luxury of combining the role's fragility with vocal suppleness? An immense tenor. What can we say of the all-out, incandescent Leonora of Karita Mattila, who lost as she often does some precision in her very straight ultrahigh range but threw her lyric soprano voice into this battle with the aplomb that she did not yet have during her performance of the role, at the Salle Pleyel in 2000, under the baton of Sawallisch.
Merlin was not as happy with the conducting of Myung-Whun Chung, at the podium of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. The only other review I read (Ludwig van Beethoven : Fidelio, June 26) was by Philippe Herlin for ConcertoNet.com, who also had nothing but praise for the singers. By contrast, he found that Myung-Whun Chung's style produced "a sound that was light, compact, round, and never heavy." He admitted that this may not be the right approach for Beethoven, but that the orchestral performance was still "very interesting." The second performance was broadcast live on France Musiques on June 29. That would probably be the ideal way to hear such a performance.

Anja Kampe, sopranoGlyndebourne is mounting a production of Fidelio this summer, too, a revival of the 2001 production. The opera's potential for political commentary has a certain resonance at this time, as noted by Warwick Thompson in his review (Chilling 'Fidelio' Brings Anti-Terror Dilemma to Glyndebourne, July 7) for Bloomberg News:
At a time when the British government is once again weighing up the civil liberty versus anti-terror arguments about national security, Beethoven's opera "Fidelio" appears like a shot across the bows. Should people ever be held without charge or trial? In Deborah Warner's excellent production of "Fidelio" at Glyndebourne, the answer is not a straightforward one. Naturally she keeps our sympathies focussed on the hero Florestan, a man who has been secretly imprisoned on the personal whim of his powerful enemy Pizarro. Yet she's also deliberately vague about all the other men in his prison -- men who also get released and pardoned at the end. Who are they? Are they all political detainees? Are they all innocent? As Beethoven's brilliant C major finale rang out and these men delivered some brutal mob-justice to Pizarro, I found the sense of indeterminate triumphalism as thought-provoking as anything I've seen on stage.

Jean Kalman's prison designs perfectly complement this vagueness. He fills the jailer's office with regulation tubular steel furniture, a grey filing cabinet and a peeling formica desk. It could be any time over the last 30 years or so. It seems warm, so maybe we're in Franco's Spain; but then it could also be Ceausescu's Romania, or Zhivkov's Bulgaria, or Castro's Cuba, or any number of places. It only makes the stage warmth seem all the more ironic and chilling. [...]

The trim German soprano Anja Kampe triumphs as Fidelio-Leonore, the woman who bravely rescues her husband Florestan. Her voice is a great big ringing powerful marvel, and though she uses it with intelligence and sensitivity, she also knows when to let rip. Her cry of "Noch heute!" ("Today!") when told she must dig her husband's grave, is one of the loudest, most exciting things I've heard at Glyndebourne. Plus-size German tenor Torsten Kerl (Florestan) hardly looks like a man who's been living on bread and water for a month, but when the flood of his exciting heldentenor voice pours out, suddenly it's not so hard to suspend disbelief. Such is the power of music.
Other Articles:

Tom Service, Fidelio (The Guardian, July 4)

Hilary Finch, Fidelio (London Times, July 5)

Anna Picard, Fidelio (The Independent, July 9)

Paul Taylor, Deborah Warner: How I learnt to love opera (The Independent, July 3)
Richard Fairman also made the trip to Sussex (Fidelio, Glyndebourne Festival, Sussex, July 4) for the Financial Times:
Almost 200 years after its premiere, Beethoven’s opera seems as painfully relevant as ever. Deborah Warner’s 2001 production for Glyndebourne came too soon to transport this drama of prisoners held without trial to Guantánamo Bay, but it is still set in the present. Costumes and surroundings are unspecific enough to suggest that the events could be happening anywhere, but they are certainly happening now. Life in this prison, with its barred cages and overhead walkways, is oppressive for everybody. Warner’s production turns up the intensity from the beginning, playing up the sexual frustrations in the sub-plot to breaking point. Unfortunately, the story that really matters, of Florestan’s wrongful imprisonment and attempted murder, comes across as less momentous than usual.
Fairman was also enthusiastic, slightly less so, about the singing and especially praised the conducting of Mark Elder, heading up the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Finally, Rupert Christiansen wrote a review (Glyndebourne on top form, July 5) for The Telegraph:
A moving and enthralling Fidelio. It's not often that I've had cause to write those words together - in our cynical, materialistic age, it's become difficult to perform Beethoven's opera of sacrifice and idealism, good and evil, darkness and light, with religious conviction. But Glyndebourne has pulled it off, in a revival that shows the place on top form, building on team-work, attention to detail and rigorous rehearsal rather than star-turns and staging gimmicks. [...] Deborah Warner has returned to re-mount her 2001 production, imaginatively designed and lit by Jean Kalman, and the intervening years have only served to consolidate its virtues. Clearly inspired by the terrible images of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, it powerfully suggests a prison in which the jailors are as much incarcerated as the jailed.
It all sounds like good opera to me.

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